Dory L.'s blog

The World of Downton Abbey

ISBN: 
9781608833894

My husband, who seldom brings books home from the library, surprised me recently with this one.  I laughed and said, "I'm not that desperate" but after dinner I found myself browsing through the pictures. But soon I was drawn into the writing.  If you're a Downton Abbey fan, you'll love this book and if not, you'll probably at least sample the series after reading it.

The World of Downton Abbey is a social history of the times--Edwardian England to shortly after World War 1.  In eight essays, Fellowes describes life then.  She also gives an idea of how many people worked in service in those years--more than in farming or mining.  Families would rejoice when a child got hired by a wealthy landowner, especially one as highly regarded as an earl. Not only would the person have a secure job, but the family would no longer have to provide housing, clothing or food as they would have needed to if the person worked as a clerk.

This book is full of interesting facts about working in service at the beginning of the last century. There was a network of downstairs folk who spread news of job openings from place to place and also kept a black-list of rich people who mistreated their help.

Also, covered are corsets--just know you are very lucky to be spared the agony of wearing one. Even Daisy the kitchen maid had to don this straitjacket under her uniform. A woman in those days could not take hers off by Read more »

Me and Mr. Darcy

ISBN: 
9780345502544

While suffering withdrawal pangs from Downton Abbey last week, I came upon Alexandra Potter's light but literate Me and Mr. Darcy.  Like Downton Abbey it offers fancy English estates, afternoon tea on fine china, cool British accents, and couples in love.

You can tell that Alexandra Potter, a Brit, writing about an American heroine, has spent a lot of time in the States. Her bio notes that she travels often to New York and L.A. She has the American idiom down and captures Yankee humor well.

The book starts out with Emily (a New York bookstore manager) out on a date with a cheap guy who is calculating how much extra she owes for the pizza that they just shared. (She added toppings for her half.)  Unfortunately, Emily has a track record of being unlucky in love.  Her fashionable friend, Stella, who also works at the bookstore, invites her on a winter beach vacation with the hope of meeting new men. Emily refuses. Glancing at a flyer on the counter, Emily has a ready excuse--she can't because she's going on a one week "Jane Austen Tour."

Impulsively, Emily snags the last spot for the event and joins a coterie of much older ladies on the bus tour.  The only two men are the aged driver and a rather obnoxious, poorly dressed reporter who will be covering the event.

Potter has a good ear for snappy dialogue. Spike, the reporter, and Emily don't click at all. In fact, Emily really Read more »

Blue Nights

ImageOK. I confess. This book sat for most of its check-out period on my night table. I had read Didion's excellent book The Year of Magical Thinking but I knew that this new memoir covered another territory  of loss--not that of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, but of her daughter who had the wonderful name of Quintana Roo (a state in Mexico.)

And yes, Blue Nights is sad. As would be any book about losing your only child. But it's also amazingly human, full of insights and many questions, some of which go unanswered.

First the title. It comes from those late June, early July nights where twilight seems to linger for hours until darkness finally comes. The light is soft; the world is warm and alive. Didion speaks of them as occurring only in the north, not far south in LA where she spent much of her life as a screenwriter, essayist, and novelist and where Quintana grew up. No, the blue lights happen in New York City where Didion now lives now and where Quintana died young at the age of thirty-nine from a massive infection. To make matters even more tragic, she first got ill only five months after her wedding.

The book covers other things as well adoption, meeting with biological family for the first time as an adult, parenting, the failures of parenting, and, in particular, aging.  Didion writes with brutal honesty especially about this last topic. Read more »

Cocktail Hour under the Tree of Forgetfulness

ImageAlexandra Fuller writes beautifully about Africa. This is her second memoir set there. Both Cocktail Hour under the Tree of Forgetfulness and Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight also give homage to her parents, particularly her mother, Nicola, or Nicola of Central Africa, as her mom playfully nicknamed herself.

Nicola loves books and reading and wanted her first daughter to become a writer but Vanessa held firm about spurning books and taking up art. So Alexandra became the writer in the family, but not one that her mother could not control.  For Nicola, Alexandra's career as a writer is a mixed blessing.  She constantly calls her daughter's first memoir that "awful book" probably because Alexandra tells the truth in it about her Mom's drinking. Read more »

Me and You

ImageThis short novel describes a teen's experience not fitting in at school.  What makes Me and You different is that it's set in Rome, so you get a feel for the modern Italian family. Lorenzo has trouble making friends. Observing other kids at school closely, he sees what they do to fit in--what clothes they wear, how they talk, where they hang out, etc. and he tries to blend in but pretending to be someone he's not goes against his basic being. Nobody hangs out with him at school; he has no friends. But it's driving his overly-doting Mom crazy.

So one day he informs her that he has been invited on a ski week with several of his most popular classmates. It's a bold-faced lie to make her happy and to get her to leave him alone. But then he must improvise a place to stay as well as provide chirruping conversation on his cell to convince his mom that he has gone to Cortina and is having a grand time.He sneaks back into the basement of their house where the former owner's furniture is stored. Apparently, his father bought the house on a reverse mortgage plan, and even though the woman has died, they have never gotten rid of her belongings. Lorenzo has set up a cot and stored enough food and sodas for the week. Also, carefully gathered are piles of books. Read more »

How to Die in Paris

ImageThe title intrigued me, so I pulled this book off the new shelf.  How to Die in Paris is Thomas's first book, a memoir, about her trip of seven months to Italy and Paris. Like all good travel books, it's also autobiographical, not only detailing the author's present but also her past.

Like many twenty-somethings, Naturi's had a difficult time in the recession finding steady work in NY City. Periodically, she lists how many times she's moved in the past few years, and how many nights she has spent couch-surfing, or staying with friends.

Before setting off for Europe, a friend takes her to see a fortune teller.  Although Naturi pokes fun at the process, the fortune teller is adamant that the young woman will have an extremely tough time in Europe.  Naturi scoffs it off, but... Read more »

A History of the World in 100 Objects

ImageWhat a cool idea for a book. Telling the history of the world by looking at museum artifacts. To make it even more interesting, these descriptive reports of jewelry, mummies, pottery, coins, art, textiles, etc. were written by experts for radio.  Luckily, for us we get to view the pictures also, hundreds of them.

A History of the World in 100 Objects is no coffee table book but a book to be read end to end. The entries for each of the objects (that range in date from 2,000,000 B.C. to 2010 A.D.) describe not only the artifacts themselves but what they teach us about history and about humanity. For example of silver bowl full of coins from around the year 927--shows that already England was well on its way to becoming a monarchy. Inscribed on one coin is Athelstan Rex totius Britanniae or Athelstan, King of All Britain.  

Other items found in this same buried stash were arm bracelets from Ireland, Viking coins, and others from as far away as Afghanistan. A Viking stash of coins showed that they were becoming Christian--engraved on several was St. Peter's name (Petri), but also inscribed was the hammer from Thor, the old Norse god. Read more »

Arctic Obsession: the lure of the Far North

ImageOne of the earliest historical reports of a far northern, snow-covered place was by Pytheas who sailed out of what is now Marseilles in 325 B.C., and discovered a place he called Ultima Thule, a six day journey north of Britain. No one knows exactly where his ship landed but people believe that it may have been Iceland, Greenland, Norway or the Shetlands.  Pytheas described the remarkable midnight sun and reported that the sea surrounding Thule was "neither sea nor air but a mixture like a sea-lung that binds everything together."

In the following centuries the Romans and medieval scholars called the Far North "the kingdom of the dead" where the Cyclops lived "in a place of chaos, the abysmal chasm." In those days scholars also believed that the North Pole was a "gigantic metallic rock rising out of the ocean." Read more »

New Poetry Books for the New Year

Come, ThiefHere are a couple more poetry books that I've been enjoying lately.

Jane Hirshfield's Come, Thief is an inviting and intriguing book by one of our best poets. Her poems are on the small side with lots of white space but they are packed with so much insight and punch, that they more than satisfy. To her poems Hirshfield brings an eye for nature, wisdom for relationships and a Zen philosophy. Here's the beginning of "Fourth World."
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London Under

London UnderAs someone who has explored sewers as a kid--they were in a new subdivision; it was on a dare--I totally understand the appeal of life underground. Who hasn't dug in their yard and hoped to find arrowheads or pottery from thousands of years ago?

Ackroyd, who wrote a book about the above-ground city several years ago, now dives underneath to recount the other world under busy streets, cathedrals, government buildings, and flats.

It's fascinating stuff. In the 19th century workmen excavating before constructing new buildings discovered huge chunks of the Roman wall that surrounded the city about two millenia ago. Other builders during that same time period found a stairway down to a brick-walled room with a spurting spring that they believed was used as a baptismal font during medieval times.
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